Sticky Notes: Teaching Employees to Get Organized

Often there is a disconnect on the front lines between the organizational tools that are available to employees and what they are actually doing.

With the latest electronic devices and systems, how could anybody be disorganized ever again? The answer is simple, of course: The greatest devices and systems in the world are no good to someone who doesn’t use them. So often there is a disconnect on the front lines between the organizational tools that are available to employees and what they are actually doing.

When managers ask me about dealing an employee who is “disorganized” at work, usually what they mean is that this employee loses track of information. It might be information that is called upon for regular use, will be called upon in the future, or must be passed on to somebody else.

My first question is always this: “What system should this person be using?”

Good System Not Being Used

I’d say about half the time there is a perfectly good system in place, whether it be high or low tech. The problem is simply that the individual in question is not using the system. They don’t like it, they don’t get it, or they never learned it. The basic training on using the system might have slipped through the cracks for this employee, or maybe the training wasn’t very good. Or maybe this employee does not have a particular aptitude for this sort of system. Or maybe the individual in question just hasn’t done the work of learning the system and using the system.

Start here and you will solve half such problems right off the bat: Insist that this person get retrained on the system and follow up in one-on-ones to make sure they are practicing after the retraining and then investing the time in making the transition to using the new system. They may complain along the way, but once on the other side of adopting the system, They will reap great benefits from the increased organization. So will you and everybody else who works with them.

Horrible System Used with Workarounds

A slightly more complicated challenge is when employees are struggling with an information management system that is in place but is horrible. I’ve seen this so often—an organization where much of the day-to-day work is tied up in an outdated system that is overloaded, clunky, and does not deliver the optimal functions to users. So people struggle with it, complain about it, and often blame small failures on the system.

What do you do? You join the chorus calling for a new system. But you also should ask yourself: Why are some employees much better than others at using the horrible system? The reason is that, no matter how bad the system might be, those individuals have mastered it as best as one can, so they get better results from it.

Make sure those best practices are documented by the best practice leaders so they can be taught to others. You need to get everybody up to speed on using the best practices to make the most of a suboptimal system. In your one-on-ones with the weaker users of the system, insist that they start learning and practicing the best practices. Maybe you can get some of the power-users to coach the weaker users. You might need to rally the troops to get excited about getting better at using a horrible system.

The good news is that even the worst system is better than no system at all. You can be sure of this: An employee who is disorganized needs to make better use of systems. If there is no system in place for this person to keep track of information, then no wonder they are so disorganized. So how do some employees manage to stay organized on their own? They have come up with their own system for capturing and managing information, I promise you.

Identify and Leverage the Best Practices

If you want to develop new systems, maybe the first place you should look is the best practices that may have been adopted ad hoc by your more “organized” employees. What systems have they developed that are helping them stay better organized? Maybe there is a way to copy those systems and employ them for everybody else.

Otherwise, you might find yourself working one-on-one with this employee, trying to come up with a system to help this one employee stay organized. If you find yourself in that situation, don’t try to reinvent the wheel. And don’t try to go from 0 to 60. Focus on the fundamentals.

Managing information is all about storing it for later use. In essence, that simply means keeping track of:

  • Information you will need to return to regularly (resources)
  • Information you need to pass on to someone else
  • Information you need to return to at a specific point in the future

Teach Them to Take Notes

The trickier part of the equation is teaching employees what information to capture and how to capture it so it can be easily managed. That takes practice—ideally regular practice with the guidance and direction of a good coach. The answers will be different in every situation. You have to figure that out with your direct reports.

Our research shows that when managers instill one very specific habit in employees—note-taking—their organizational prowess increases dramatically as measured by information tracking error rates. Regular note-taking, doesn’t matter if it’s on paper or electronic. Whatever the system, when employees are in the habit of taking notes in an organized manner, they get better at knowing what information to capture and how: before, during, and after one-on-ones and group meetings.

Over time, good note-taking becomes seamlessly intertwined with plans and schedules, to-do lists, and performance tracking. Note-taking becomes part of revising and adjusting work plans and checklists. I often point out that checklists are common in workplaces where there is little room for error: operating rooms, airplane cockpits, nuclear weapons launch sites, accounting firms, and so on. There’s a reason for that: Checklists are powerful tools to help people maintain organization and focus.

One of the beauties of working with employees who take notes and use checklists is that you can use those notes and checklists as a tool in your regular one-on-one dialogue with that person. When you get direct reports engaged in this process, you are, in effect, getting them to participate in documenting their own performance by using self-monitoring tools. During your one-on-ones, look carefully at these notes and checklists and you will learn a huge amount about where that employee is coming from and where they are going. Use what you learn every step of the way to fine-tune your performance coaching.

Bruce Tulgan
Bruce Tulgan is a best-selling author and CEO of RainmakerThinking, the management research, consulting, and training firm he founded in 1993. All of his work is based on 27 years of intensive workplace interviews and has been featured in thousands of news stories around the world. His newest book, “The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done” ( Harvard Business Review Press) is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all major booksellers. Follow Tulgan on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his Website at: